Fela Kuti was a musical trailblazer who did for Afrobeat what Bob Marley did for reggae — and yet, a fraction of music lovers even know his name. Finding Fela, a new documentary about the life, music and politics of Fela Kuti, aims to change all that. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), the film walks us through the Nigerian musician's childhood, rise to fame, political dissidence and untimely death from complications due to AIDS.
Finding Fela, which features interviews with Sir Paul McCartney, Questlove, Bill T. Jones and others influenced by Kuti's music, also weaves in behind-the-scenes footage of the mounting of FELA! on Broadway, a musical about Kuti's life set to the pulse of Afrobeat. In the film FELA! director Bill T. Jones poses the important question to his crew: "How do we make this story accessible to people who have never heard of Fela?" Gibney's documentary endeavors to answer that question.
We chatted with Kuti's youngest son, Seun Kuti, who took over Kuti's band Egypt80 at the tender age of 14 and carries the responsibility of bringing Afrobeat to a new generation, to talk about the way his father was portrayed in the documentary. "I can't say the film taught me anything new about my father," says Seun, who was 14 when Fela died. "But, the [archival] footage in the film and the way it was all put together, that is something I had never seen before. It was really cool to see the transition of Fela, to see many people telling their side of who he was in the context of this documentary."
Seun Kuti also addresses criticism in the documentary from his older siblings that, while Kuti was an icon for Nigerians, he was an absentee father. "I think they had it tough, because when they were growing up my dad was relatively young and very active," he explains. "The Fela that I experienced was completely different. He was older, more relaxed. He was available whenever I needed him. He was a different type of father to me than he was to my elder siblings."
Seun, 33, became a father himself last year, welcoming daughter Ifafunmike Kuti in December. As for whether Kuti has dreams that his own daughter will take over Egypt80 as he did from Fela, Seun jokes, "If she did what I want, she would play tennis!"
"Whatever she does, I want her to believe that she is someone who can change the world, too," he says, getting serious. "I believe that many parents do not have the same expectations of their daughters as they do of their sons. If she is married, has a steady job, for them it is enough. For me, I believe she has to make a difference as well. I have as high of expectations for her as I do for anybody else."
As for who will take over Fela's, and now his, legacy, Seun says, "Fela's legacy doesn't have to be limited to just his children. Fela was a father of the world, and the world will take over his legacy."
Finally, Kuti dishes a few details about a long-rumored biopic on Fela Kuti, reportedly being written by Oscar-winner Steve McQueen. "I met with McQueen in Lagos [Nigeria], and we had a really interesting conversation about it," he says. "My family is very involved in [the project]. My elder siblings are more hands-on with it." While Kuti wouldn't reveal any details about who is on the short list to play Fela (Chiwetel Ejiofor has been rumored for quite some time), he did say the project would be underway "very soon."
Finding Fela is in select theaters now.
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(Photo: David Corio/Redferns)